Sociology of Muslim deprivation: some thoughts in the context of the Sachar Committee Report

By Yoginder Sikand

This presentation is not a rigorously-argued academic paper. Instead, it seeks to offer tray thoughts on the very complex issue of the sociology of Indian Muslim deprivation in the light of the Sachar Committee Report. Rather than focusing on the deep-rooted historical causes as well as dimensions of Muslim deprivation, about which much has already been written, I would rather reflect on certain other aspects related to this question, in addition to making a critique of some aspects of the Sachar Committee Report and also offering some suggestions for Muslim organizations to consider.

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The first issue that I would like to deal with relates to the literature and knowledge-base that we have on the subject of Muslim deprivation. In this regard, reference to an interview I recently conducted with a senior Muslim leader is pertinent. I asked him what he felt about the Sachar Committee Report. His reply was that the overall findings and conclusions of the report were hardly novel. The same basic findings—that Muslims, by and large, are a deprived community and suffer from various levels of discrimination and neglect—have been repeatedly highlighted by Muslims themselves, in addition to various committees and commissions appointed by the Central or state governments in the past. After the Sachar Committee Report was sent to the Government of India, he said, it had done almost nothing at all, failing to act on the recommendations of the report. He was not optimistic that the Government would do much in any case. 'We'll just have to wait and see', he replied, clearly not expecting much to come of the report. He rightly made the point that it was quite possible that, as in the case of numerous such committee reports in the past, this report, too, would be left ignored by the Government and that it would simply be used as a means to garner Muslim votes, at best to justify a few cosmetic sops to some Muslims in order to preserve or expand the vote-bank of a certain political party. I think that sums up the feeling that large sections of the Muslims who are aware of the report have about it.

This Muslim leader I interviewed made some other interesting points with reference to the Sachar Committee Report. Although the fact of Muslim deprivation and anti-Muslim discrimination was something that Muslim organizations and leaders have been constantly repeating, he said, now it was the Government itself that was acknowledging this fact, through the commission that it had appointed. Hence, the complaints of Muslim leaders and organizations could no longer be taken as exaggerated or false, he said. Nor could remedial measures to address the issue of Muslim deprivation be dismissed as unwarranted 'minority appeasement', as the Hindutva right-wing argues. Hence, he said, even if the Government failed to act on the recommendations of the Sachar Committee Report, at least now Muslims would have with them an official document issued by the Government which they could use to argue their case of being a deprived community and, therefore, deserving of positive discrimination.

Turning the question in a somewhat different direction, I asked this leader why it was that we have had to wait all these years for a Government-appointed committee to tell or convince us of the obvious fact of Muslim deprivation. Why is it, I asked, that Muslim organizations have not done any sort of serious academic research and analysis on the subject in order to highlight the fact of Muslim deprivation and to press the case for greater involvement of civil society groups as well as the state in addressing the issue. His answer simply was to say that if any Muslim organization had produced a document of this sort it would not have been treated as 'reliable' or 'authentic' by the state or by many non-Muslims simply because it had been authored or commissioned by a Muslim individual or organisation, even if it had been entirely accurate—a sign of the deep-rooted prejudices in our society that are so difficult to challenge.

This point relates to the broader issue of scholarship on Indian Muslims, including on the crucial aspect of their overall deprivation. Obviously, understanding the roots and the various facets and dimensions of overall Muslim deprivation and then doing something practical about it requires serious scholarship, which is seriously lacking today. There exist relatively few well-researched, empirically based studies of contemporary Indian Muslim society. Much that has been written about the Indian Muslims is simply historical. It is as if Indian Muslim history stops at 1947, at the Partition. And even here the focus is on the history of Muslim elites, be they various Muslim ruling dynasties or Muslim princes or ulema who fought the British in 1857 or the leaders of the Muslim League and Muslims in the Congress Party. 'Ordinary' Muslims, that is to say, the vast majority of the Indian Muslims, have received find very little attention in the existing corpus of writings.

Coming to the post-1947 period, here, too, there is a great paucity of serious scholarship on the empirical realities and conditions of the Indian Muslims. Much that has been written on the subject has been in journalistic mode, lacking sufficient empirical depth, and thus often tending to make overly broad and untenable generalizations, thereby reinforcing negative stereotypes. Further the limited corpus of writings on the subject is dominated by the question of secularism versus communalism, as if this was a unique Muslim concern or as if Muslims have only this as their concern and that their other crucial concerns, such as poverty, poor education, unemployment and so on, were of no importance to them. Two more themes have received considerable attention in both academic as well as journalistic writings on the post-1947 Indian Muslims—the question of the status of Muslim women and the issue of the madrasa system of education. But even here the focus has tended to be on certain sensational stories, which were sought to be linked to the secularism versus communal debate in some way or the other. Consequently, relatively very little has been written on a range of other crucial social, educational and economic challenges facing Muslims in India today, apart from some very broad surveys that using quantitative data. Detailed, empirical, qualitative studies on these issues are hard to come by.

There are various reasons for this lack of serious social science literature on these crucial aspects of contemporary Indian Muslim society, which, as I mentioned above, is essential for us to have a clearer understanding of the multiple causes of overall Muslim deprivation and of the means to address the issue. There are relatively few Indian Muslim social scientists of note who have done such work. Sociology is probably not considered by many as a means for a well-paid career that can attract serious students. Scholarship on the subject by non-Muslim scholars is also, for a variety of reasons, very limited. Indeed, extremely few non-Muslim Indian social scientists have devoted their scholarly attention to Muslims in contemporary India, other than dealing with such issues as women, personal law, communal riots, and the secularism versus communalism debate.

While Indian Muslim organizations run numerous research centres and institutes to do with Islam, there are only a negligible number of such institutes for research and publication on Indian Muslim social, as distinct from religious, issues. The only such institution of note with somewhat of a national profile, presence and reach I can think of is the New Delhi-based Institute of Objective Studies. This is probably the only such institution in the country that regularly publishes social science-related works on the Indian Muslims, although even here there is considerable room for improvement in the quality of its research output. Considering the fact that the Indian Muslims number more than 150 million, the fact that we have just one such institution doing this sort of work is indeed very unfortunate.

The same pattern is reflected in the Muslim publishing industry, at least in north India, which I am more familiar with. Few such publishing houses deal in this sort of social scientific, research-based literature on and about the Indian Muslims. Instead, the issues they focus on are largely religious, historical or literary. And so it is virtually impossible to find literature other than on these issues in any Muslim bookshop.

One of the results of the serious lack of scholarship on and about contemporary Indian Muslim social reality is that talk about the issue is often framed in very general terms, with broad generalizations being made that are, at the empirical level, not really valid. This, for instance, is the case about the very issue of 'Muslim deprivation', which this paper purports to discuss. The extreme paucity of research on the subject feeds the tendency to present the Indian Muslims as a monolith. This suits the interests of certain Muslim elites who claim to speak for all Muslims, the state, which relates to these elites as 'spokesemen' of the community, and, curiously enough, Hindutva zealots, who, likewise, seek to tar all Muslims with the same brush. Ignoring the internal diversities of caste, class, region and gender within the broader pan-Indian Muslim community leads to certain demands and arguments that claim to reflect the views and interests of all the Indian Muslims, but, which, in fact, might benefit only a very small elite of self-appointed 'leaders' of the community. This, for instance, is the case for the demand, made by some Muslim leaders, for reservations for all Muslims, based on the fallacious argument that all Muslims are 'backward'. Obviously, this demand would benefit only a small section of Muslim elites. In the absence of adequate social science research on the subject of Muslim 'backwardness', such demands are easily allowed to pass by uncontested.

Another illustration of the disastrous effects of the lack of sociological research on the Indian Muslims is the fact that, in the absence of such studies, the claims by the Central and various state governments of providing various benefits and schemes for Muslims are left unproven and so the state is able to get away scot-free, without being challenged for reneging on its promises. Thus, in recent years, the Government of India has set up numerous bodies and commissions, such as the Ministry of Minority Affairs, the National Minorities Education Commission, the National Commission for Linguistic Minorities, the National Minorities Finance and Development Corporation, the Maulana Azad Foundation and so on. One has no idea of precisely what these organizations have actually done for Muslim welfare. Presumably they have done but little. Take the case of a body that has been in existence for years—the National Minorities Commission. That the annual reports of this Commission have not been tabled in Parliament for years now speaks volumes of the Government's supposed commitment to minority rights and welfare. Had we rigorous documentation and research on these organizations and the work they claim to have done, we could have been able to argue against the claims of the state of having done a lot for Muslim welfare. But because we have no such research, we cannot do this effectively and so our case for greater affirmative action is considerably weakened.

Of course, the state has a major role to play with regard to Muslim empowerment precisely because it has played a critical role in sustaining structures of disempowerment and marginalization. But in addition to the agencies of the state, civil society organizations need also to play a far more socially engaged role both in terms of practical work as well as advocacy and lobbying with the government. This is something that Muslim organizations, particularly in the north, have not effectively explored.

The situation in the south may be different, but in the north and the north-east, where the bulk of the Indian Muslims reside, there appear to be relatively few Muslim NGOs doing effective work in seeking to address the issue of Muslim deprivation in concrete terms. Recently, a friend of mine published a directory of Muslim NGOs. Glancing through it, I discovered that the vast majority of these NGOs were engaged in providing religious education and instruction. While this is, of course, very essential, there appears to be a distinct lack of Muslim NGOs in the north doing practical work to address the issue of Muslim poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and so on. A study conducted by the eminent social scientist Imtiaz Ahmad found that well over 80% of zakat funds provided by members of the community is given to madrasas. While madrasa education is, of course, important, one wonders if community leaders should not also seek to channelise zakat funds to other sorts of organizations and institutions as well. Serious measures need to be considered to promote voluntary organizations in the community for purposes in addition to religious education, to appraise such organizations of various government schemes and to promote co-ordination among these organizations and also with non-Muslim or secular organizations.

Another issue that needs to be urgently addressed in the context of the question of Muslim deprivation is that of the media policy or the lack thereof. We need to ask if Muslim organizations, including the Muslim-owned media, are indeed being able to counter anti-Muslim or Islamophobic discourses that are now so deeply engrained in large parts of the Indian (in addition to the Western) media. Of course they are not. What are the reasons for this? What measures need to be taken in this regard? Insofar as large sections of the non-Muslim media do refer to Islam or Muslims, it is generally in the context of some or the other sensational or dramatic news, whether real or imaginary or exaggerated, often with the intention of further reinforcing negative stereotypes. So, the media will highlight cases related to Muslim women, or madrasas or violence committed on or by Muslims, but rarely, if ever, does it have any positive stories on Muslims. Rarely, if ever, does it talk about the issue and magnitude of Muslim marginalization. In this regard, Muslim organizations need to be much more professional than they are in reaching out to the non-Muslim media to have their voices heard. They need to have a proper media and lobbying policy. They need to establish contact and dialogue with elements in the media that are concerned about Muslim rights and issues. They are several such people in the media and they only need to be properly reached out to.

The Muslim media also has a crucial to play in the context of efforts to address Muslim deprivation.  I don't know what the situation is in the south, but in large parts of the north, the Urdu media plays devotes little attention to the manifold social, economic and educational problems besetting the Muslim masses. Few Muslim magazines, journals newspapers carry in-depth stories and reports on the plight of the poor among the Muslims or about efforts by various individuals and social action groups engaged in trying to practically address these issues. In this regard, it may be pertinent to mention that there are just two English-language Muslim periodicals of note in the country—the Bangalore-based Islamic Voice and the New Delhi-based Milli Gazette. The former is more concerned with religious issues, while it does devote some attention to community news. The latter is more oriented to community issues, but, like the former, does not have the network and resources needed for regular reporting on social, economic and educational issues across the country. They are both urban-centric, and only rarely  do they carry stories about  the conditions of Muslims living in rural areas—that is to say, the considerable majority of the Indian Muslim population. Sometime ago I did a random survey of Indian Muslim online groups and I found the same pattern being repeated—the discussions were mainly about religion and elite level politics, with few, if any, references to the complex social, economic and educational problems of the Muslim masses. This, of course, is a very important issue that the Muslim media needs to take up with the seriousness that it deserves.  And in this way, the Muslim media can work towards getting precisely these issues to be included in the agenda of various political parties. One possible creative initiative in this regard would be to start a features agencies specializing in Muslim social issues. Feature stories could be translated into various languages and sent out to different newspapers, Muslim as well as others, so that the concerns of Muslims are made more public. As things stand today, the Muslim-owned media is largely a Muslim ghetto, with few non-Muslims reading Muslim-owned papers or watching Muslim television channels.

To come back to the Sachar Committee Report—while its numerous recommendations are indeed welcome, it is possible, as earlier mentioned, that the Government might do little, if at all, to act on them. But in welcoming the report, we must not lose sight of its limitations. Thus, for instance, while talking of the need for empowering the Muslim community, the Report speaks precious little about the insecurity that Muslims suffer in large parts of the country, often as a result of connivance of the state with Hindutva forces. The link between this and Muslim economic deprivation is obvious, but this is something that the report does not deal with in the manner it should have. The report does not talk of deep-rooted anti-Muslim biases in school textbooks and the Hinduistic ethos of the state school system in  several states in the country as a possible reason for Muslim educational 'backwardness'. The report does not mention the particular needs of Muslim women and the necessity of specific provision for them. Nor does it talk about the policies of rampant exploitation in the garb of globalization and liberalism that are playing havoc with Muslim artisans and small manufacturers, driving them out of the market and into the abyss of penury. Likewise, it leaves out the whole question of land ownership, which is extremely crucial, given the fact that, as a whole, Muslims suffer from a considerably higher degree of landlessness than most other communities.

There is much more that one can say with regard to the complex issue of Muslim deprivation, but I think I would stop here. Briefly, what I have tried to argue here is for Muslim organizations to take a far more active role in commissioning research on the subject, lobby with the state and political parties based on these issues and findings, dialogue with the non-Muslim-owned media and encourage the Muslim media to take the issue of Muslim marginalization much more seriously and to encourage the setting up of voluntary agencies, not as a substitute for, but, rather, as complimenting state initiatives to address the manifold problems facing the community.
Yogi Sikand is associated with Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi